Brahms spent the summers of 1877-79, some of the most productive of his life, in Carinthia. These years saw the composition of the Ballads, Op. 75, the Second Symphony, the Songs, Opp. 69-72, the Motet, Op. 74, the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76, the Violin Sonata, Op. 78, the Violin Concerto, Op. 77, and the Rhapsodies, Op. 79.
No doubt this burst of creativity was at least partially related to Brahms' "re-acquaintance" with Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (née Stockhausen). Brahms had met Ms. Stockhausen in Vienna in 1863, when she began to take lessons from him. He found her so attractive he could not talk around her, much less teach her anything, and suggested she study with Julius Epstein, who had the same problem with her. It was only after Stockhausen married Heinrich von Herzogenberg that Brahms was capable of being comfortable with the woman he affectionately called "Liesl."
Probably because the texts verge on the style of epic poetry, in the tradition of the Medieval Ballad, Brahms' Op. 75 settings occasionally take on the air of a dramatic scene. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the folksong is the ideal toward which the composer of songs must strive. By the release of the Nine Songs, Op. 69, Brahms had begun to distance himself from the language of the folksong. Some aspects, however, remain in his Ballades, Op. 75, such as mainly diatonic melodies, repetition of the last words of a verse, consistent rhythmic patterns and the lack of lengthy piano introductions. However, harmonic and formal procedures of the "art song" tradition are at the core of each duet. The Ballades and Romances, Op. 75, were published in 1878.
The text of "Guter Rat" (Good Advice) is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, (The Youth's Magic Horn), a two-volume anthology of German folk poetry edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published between 1805 and 1808. Brahms composed his setting, for soprano and alto voices with piano, in 1877-8.
When a mother learns of her daughter's desire to leave home with a man, the mother advises the daughter to stay for a year. After the daughter replies that she prefers the man to all of her mother's possessions, the mother tells her to collect her clothes and take off after the man. The daughter asks the mother for money to buy more clothes, but the mother points out that the father has lost all of their money gambling, at which point the daughter says it would have been better to have been born a boy so she could earn her own money.
After alternating their contrasting verses (with only slight variation in accompaniment for the repetitions) the mother (alto) and daughter (soprano) enter a central section in G major, in which they both sing new material. As the daughter complains about her father's irresponsibility, the key moves back to E major for a return of the opening material. However, only the daughter's verse returns, in 6/8 meter and varied to create a strong close. The occasional triplet-with-duplet rhythms in both the 2/4 and 6/8 sections result from the meter of the poem--Brahms' homage to the folk idiom.